Gilder's Microcosm

John McCann
Last update: March 8, 1995

This page contains a summary of George Gilder's writing about the Telecosm. The reader should have first read my summary of his writings on the Microcosm.

Gilder's study of the microcosm led to the conclusion that the microprocessor is putting the individual in control because s/he is the entity that quantum physics is making the more efficient and productive than collections of individuals organized and directed from the center. But Gilder does not lead us to conclude that all work will flow from individuals working in isolation. His real message is that all intelligence will move to the edge of the network ... this is the real promise of the microcosmic miracle. But to become productive, do we need another miracle, one that will make the network as efficient and effective as the microchip-based computers of the microcosm?

Gilder seems to think so. After finishing his work on the microcosm in the late 1980s, he turned his research to the network and is leading us into the telecosm. Gilder tells us that the microcosm will not have it "big bang" until it is married with the telecosm, which will give us the bandwidth the accommodate the immense computing power that will move to the edges of the networks. Let's listen to what Gilder has to say about the telecosm:

During the next decade or so, industry will go through a new technological wringer and submit to a new law: the law of the telecosm. The new wringer -- the new integrated circuit -- is called the all-optical network. It is a communications system that runs entirely in glass. Just as the old integrated circuit put entire electronic systems on single slivers of silicon, the new IC will put entire communications systems on seamless webs of silica. Wrought in threads as think as a human hair, this silica is so pure that you could see through a window of it 70 miles thick. But what makes the new wringer roll with all the force of the microchip revolution before it is not the purity but the price. Just as the old IC made transistor power virtually free, the new IC -- the all-optical network -- will make communications power virtually free. Another word for communications power is bandwidth. Just as the entire world had to learn to waste transistors, the entire world will now have to learn how to waste bandwidth. In the 1990s and beyond, every industry and economy will go through the wringer again.[1]

Gilder calls this world of free bandwidth the fibersphere, and to understand it you have to realize that he is talking about something that is very different from what we read about in the press in articles about the networks being planned by the telephone and cable TV industries. Gilder is talking about a network that does not contain switches because they are electronic in nature and thus slow the network to a crawl. Switches cause one to use less than one percent of a fiber network's capability, and thus must be banished from the network (according to Gilder).

But how can you have personal communications if you do not have a switch? Gilder tells us that the answer is the central rule of the telecosm: bandwidth is a nearly perfect substitute for switching. The basic idea is that there is sufficient bandwidth in an all-optical network to send all messages everywhere in the network and to allow each terminal (computer, phone, fax, etc.) to tune into is own messages. This happens today in some local area networks where communications are sent along a network cable from one PC to another. The sending PC puts the network address of the receiving PC on the front of the message and pops the message onto the network where it flows along. Each PC connected to the network looks at the message to see if it should grab it ... to see if the message contains its address. If so, the message is taken off the network by the PC. The fibersphere is just one giant network ... one that has sufficient bandwidth to handle all the world's communications.

Our common sense might tell us that this is not the way to build a network. It is as if the mail deliverer carried all the world's letters in a pouch, and stopped at each and every house, holding up each letter in turn and asking "Is this for you?" We know that it is far more efficient to run the letters through a series of human switches in the mail system that sort each letter into the correct mailbox. We know that this is the way that our telephone system works. We know that when you enter the number 9196607776 that the phone system is narrowing its choice of destinations when you type each number so that it finally knows the exact physical location that has this number assigned to it.

We also know the limitations when we do use a broadcast model such as the one adopted by the television industry in which television stations are assigned their own frequencies on which they can broadcast through the atmosphere. We tune our television sets to grab the desired television signal. We know that in this model, the network is the atmosphere and it is very dark and passive ... it has no intelligence. The intelligence that chooses among the signals is in the end point, in our brains and in our television set. We also know that we are generally not happy with this model, and that is why cable television has grown so large. But when we think about cable, we realize that it is just another form of the broadcast model, and we know that we are not very happy with it either. So, how can we be happen with a fibersphere that is as neutral and passive as the atmosphere and the cable television system?

The answer is in the bandwidth, which is so immense that it can overcome all of the problems associated with today's low bandwidth communications media. Perhaps we need to let Gilder give us the numbers to support these claims.

In communications systems, the number of waves per second, or hertz, represents a rough measure of two things about a transmitted signal: its center frequency and its bandwidth about that center frequency. The bandwidth, not the center, or carrier, frequency, is what expresses the ultimate carrying capacity. Your AM radio dial, for example, runs from around 535 kilohertz to 1, 705 kilohertz, and each station uses some 10 kilohertz. With an ideal receiver, the AM passband might carry 117 stations. The 10 kilohertz of bandwidth allowed each station suffices for speech and music, but the fidelity is poor. It is much better with FM radio, in which the bandwidth set aside for each station is 200 kilohertz, 20 times the AM number.

By contrast, the intrinsic bandwidth of one strand of dark fiber is some 25,000 gigahertz in each of three groups of frequencies -- three passbands -- through which fiber can transmit light over long distances. This bandwidth might accommodate some 25,000 super computer 'stations' at a gigahertz per terminal (or 2.5 billion AM radio stations).

For comparison, consider all the radio frequencies currently used in the air for radio, television, microwave and satellite communications -- and multiply by 1,000. The bandwidth of one fiber thread could carry more than 1,000 times as much information as all these radio and microwave frequencies that currently comprise the 'air.' Expressed another way, one fiber thread could bear all the traffic on the phone network during the peak hour of Mother's Day in the United States.[2]

Whoa! Think about it. Every person in the US. could have his or her own AM radio station, and we would still have 90 percent of the bandwidth left.

The implication of all this is that as we work our way through the last decade of the 20th century, we should prepare ourselves to survive and flourish in a world where computing power and communications bandwidth may become essentially free.

By making bandwidth nearly free, the new integrated circuit of the fibersphere will radically change the environment of all information industries and technologies. In all eras, companies tend to prevail by maximizing the use of the cheapest resources. In the era of the fibersphere, they will use the huge intrinsic bandwidth of fiber -- all 25,000 gigahertz or more -- to replace nearly all the hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of switches, bridges, routers, converters, codecs, compressors, error correctors and other devices, together with the trillions of lines of software code, that pervade the intelligent switching fabric of both telephone and computer networks.

The makers of all this equipment will resist mightily. But there is no chance that the old regime can prevail by fighting cheap and simple optics with costly and complex electronics and software.

The all-optical network will triumph for the same reason that the integrated circuit triumphed: it is incomparable cheaper than the competition.[3]

AT&T, Digital Equipment Corporation, and MIT recently formed the Wideband All Optical Networks Consortium. The consortium received $8.4 million from DARPA to "study the architecture of all-optical networks, advance the relevant technology and construct an extensive test-bed system.[4] This research should take us a long way towards understanding whether Gilder's vision of the future is correct.

Gilder tells us that the fibersphere will be the way we (humans and machines) communicate. When he wrote these words, he was basing them on the currently available knowledge of technology. But this knowledge has changed in the last two years. And it happened in a way that was predicted by Gilder: by individuals and not by large organizations. These new developments have led to the notion that we will communicate in both the fibersphere and the atmosphere. This time, it is not Shockley's discover that is the basis for the new insights, but Shannon and his development of information theory.

Shannon showed the world that two approaches were available for sending information through a noisy channel: narrowband high-powered solutions or broadband low-powered solutions. For decades, the engineers have only been able to implement the former and were thus limited to a very small portion of the available spectrum. Although Shannon had shown that there were tremendous gains in communication efficiency when using the higher bandwidth (broadband) solutions, the available technologies and science would not allow engineers to build the gear. This was true because complexity rises exponentially with bandwidth, and the engineers did not have the resources to deal with this complexity.

But the microcosm has come to the rescue, this time in the form of new chips, digital signal processors (DSP), that are dropping in price by a factor of five each year.

This wild rush in DSPs will eventually converge with the precipitous plunge in price-performance rations of general-purpose microprocessors. ... Micros are moving beyond 100-megahertz clock speeds. They are shifting from a regime of processing 32-bit words at a time to a regime of processing 64 bit words. This expands the total addressable memory by a factor of four billion. Together with increasing use of massively parallel DSP architectures, three gains will keep computers well ahead of the complexity of broadband communications. What this means is that while complexity rises exponentially with bandwidth, computer efficiencies are rising even faster. The result is to open new vistas of spectrum in the atmosphere as dramatic as the gains of spectrum so far achieved in the fibersphere.[5]

Inventors have discovered how to use Shannon's theories and the microcosm to provide radio transmission in the upper reaches of the spectrum and thus open the atmosphere to a wider array of communication opportunities.

For 35 years, the wireless communications industry has been inching up the spectrum, shifting slowly from long and strong wavelengths toward wide and weak bands of shorter wave lengths. During the 1990s, this trend will accelerate sharply. Accommodating hundreds of millions of users around the world, cellular communications will turn digital, leap up the spectrum and even move into video. Shannon's laws show that this will impel vast increases in the cost-effectiveness of communications. In general, the new rule of radio is the shorter the transmission path, the better the system. Like transistors on semiconductor chips, transmitters are more efficient the more closely they are packed together. ... The new regime favors 'geodesic networks,' with radios intimately linked into tiny microcells. As in the law of the microcosm, the less the space, the more the room. ... The law of the telecosm dictates that the higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength, the wider the bandwidth, the smaller the antenna, the slimmer the cell and ultimately, the cheaper and better the communications. The working of this law will render obsolete the entire idea of scarce spectrum and launch an era of advances in telecommunications comparable to the recent gains in computing.[6]

Notice the use of the term "microcell." This view of the wireless communications network calls for millions of them.

In essence, the new minicell replaces a rigid structure of giant analog mainframes with a system of wireless local area networks. Best of all, at a time when the computer industry is preparing a massive invasion of the air, these wide and weak radios can handle voice, data and even video at the same time. Further, by cheaply accommodating a move from scores of large base stations to scores of thousands of minicells per city -- on poles, down alleys or in elevator shafts -- the system fulfills the promise of the computer revolution as a spectrum multiplier. Since each new minicell can use all the frequencies currently used by a large cell site, the multiplication of cells achieves a similar multiplication of bandwidth. The future of wireless communications is boundless bandwidth, accomplished through the Shannon strategy of wide and weak signals, moving to ever smaller cells with lower power at higher frequencies.[7]

Gilder has led us into a world of wonder, one in which communication bandwidth becomes practically free. He is certain of this future because he has seen its analog in computers based upon increasingly powerful microchips. We too have seen that powerful companies cannot stand in the way of advances wrought from quantum physics; just look at how the old guard mainframe manufacturers have gone by the wayside as the microchips became more powerful.

Free communications is not necessary to have a communications revolution felt by most of society. Cheaper communications will suffice and we see evidence daily that the trend is underway. Consider the following example.

Seven years ago business videoconferencing equipment cost $250,000 on each end and ran up $1,000 an hour in connection charges. Now, cheaper chips and cleverer compression algorithms bring these costs down to $40,000 and $15 per hour.[8]

This is an example of the marriage of computing and television in a way that causes television to maintain its identify. New developments are underway that will lead TV, as a technology, to be subsumed as a computer, with the result called the telecomputer . As we would expect, it will be a solid state device based upon silicon and glass, and will not contain anything that we now think of as television technology.

When we have the telecomputer connected to the all-optical network, we will enter what Gilder calls the "age of the telecomputer." I will end this story with his vision of that age:

Computers will so enrich the power of communications that people will soon be saved the expense, tedium, and energy waste of conventional travel, whether for work, entertainment, or education.[9]


  1. Gilder, George, "Into the Fibersphere," Forbes, December 7, 1992, p. 346
  2. Gilder, op. cit.
  3. Gilder, op. cit.
  4. "AT&T, Digital Equipment Corporation and Massachusetts Institute of Technology Form Consortium," PR Newswire, March 2, 1993.
  5. Gilder, George, "The New Rule of Wireless," Forbes, March 29, 1993
  6. Gilder, op. cit.
  7. Gilder, op. cit
  8. David C. Churbuck and Jeffrey S. Young, "The Virtual Workplace," Forbers, November 23, 1992, p. 188.
  9. Gilder, George, Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology, Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 315.